Israel’s largest religious festival turned into its largest peacetime tragedy late Thursday night, as 45 celebrants were crushed to death, and dozens more were injured, under the feet of fellow worshippers in a horrific stampede at Mount Meron.
The annual Lag B’Omer pilgrimage commemorating the teachings of one of Judaism’s greatest mystics, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, has been marked for centuries by festive music and bonfires. The bonfires symbolize the great spiritual light that his teachings have brought to the world, as well as the souls’ yearning to connect to their Creator. This year, however, awe-inspiring light turned to unthinkable darkness.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for a national day of mourning on Sunday, as the last of those killed were laid to rest. Thousands participated on Friday in blood drives for those receiving emergency medical treatment.
And while a majority of pilgrims were members of Israel’s various Orthodox sects, Israelis from all sectors are attempting to expose the causes of a preventable tragedy.
Yet the simple truth is that no single factor caused the Meron disaster. Rather, a perfect storm of elements simultaneously came together, exposing a system filled with flaws—many of them cultural in nature. The event should open up a period of national reckoning. Whether an honest reckoning will take place—one marked by constructive and unifying measures—will require Israelis to look deep down into their own behavior.
A holy gathering?
A trip to Meron on Lag B’Omer simultaneously reveals some of the best and some of the worst of Israeli society. Commemorating the life and teachings of a great sage, hundreds of thousands converge on the tomb of Bar Yochai, known also by the anacronym “Rashbi.” Pilgrims enjoy Chassidic music. Thousands can be seen reciting psalms, followed by early sunrise prayers.
Just moments before the disaster, tens of thousands of worshippers united in prayer and song—chanting one of Maimonides’s 13 “Principles of Faith,” expressing fervent belief in the coming of a redeemer and a Messianic era.
Despite their staunch religious observance, Orthodox sects have largely angered other sectors of Israel’s public for years. Men refuse compulsory army service. Many opt to study in state-funded learning institutions, rather than work and take on their share of the tax burden. Meanwhile, Orthodox groups hold monopolies on key religious services and operate them in ways that are often viewed as corrupt.
While many of Israel’s Orthodox truly represent a beautiful blend of advanced religious observance within a modern state, that beauty is often marred by those who express a lack of appreciation for individuals and communities with lesser religious observance. As this tragedy has struck at the heart of their own community, it may be time for greater humility on their part.
Not all pilgrims to Meron are strictly Orthodox. For many, the event is simply the largest party of the year and the place to be on Lag B’Omer. Among both worshippers and party-goers, some of the less-pleasant elements of Israeli culture are exposed, including a tendency to crowd and push.
Entry into the tomb of Rashbi is reserved only for the bravest few, who must literally fight their way through throngs to reach the gravestone. The experience is highlighted by sweat, anxiety, intense heat and shortness of breath.
The only struggle greater than the one to reach the tomb is the struggle to leave. With thousands pushing to reach the same space, those who offered their momentary prayers at the gravestone must then fight against the immense tide to find the exit.
Most pilgrims are satisfied to remain outside the small tomb. Yet the same culture of pushiness can be found throughout the festival.
While Israelis locked down throughout much of a tragic year—and donned masks—they refuse, as a rule, to social distance; doing so is simply not part of the Israeli DNA.
Israelis have little awareness of, let alone respect for, other people’s personal space, pandemic or not. This cultural phenomenon is evident in nearly every aspect of Israeli society.
Giving one another a little breathing room not only could relieve much of Israel’s collective anxiety. In the case of the Meron tragedy, honoring personal space would likely have saved lives.
‘Derech eretz kadma l’Torah’
There is a famous Hebrew expression that “the ways of one’s behavior comes before Torah.” Such respect is simply not practiced by many Israeli sectors. Roadsides and parks are sadly littered with garbage. Cities literally employ hundreds of sanitation workers to clean up the trash left all over by Israelis. Israel’s water sources and skies are similarly polluted.
During Lag B’Omer, plastic bottles and garbage are strewn everywhere. Makeshift bathrooms overflow. The sight is completely inconsistent with that of a holy gathering. Cleanup after the festival is a massive undertaking. During the festival, streets become dirty, sticky and wet. In this case, wet and slippery grounds reportedly contributed to the tragic loss of footing that led to people in an incontrollable crowd toppling onto one another.
The lack of respect for the land is a major cultural phenomenon that simply must be corrected and can only be done as part of a well-organized and consistent educational campaign over the course of many years.
Bringing hundreds of thousands of men, women and children to Meron is a major logistical undertaking. Nearly every bus in the country is called into action. Thousands of police officers close off roads to private vehicles from miles away to allow for the buses to safely and smoothly enter and exit the site. Thousands of more first-responders are dispatched and on hand.
Still, the site itself is a logistical nightmare. The small town is completely unequipped to handle the throngs of foot traffic. Makeshift bleachers and passageways stand little chance of properly accommodating the crowds. For the Lag B’Omer festival to continue moving forward, serious efforts must be taken to completely renovate the town, build permanent concert facilities and establish safe passageways for pilgrims, as well as for law enforcement and emergency responders.
Mistrust of police
The Israel Police is not generally respected, as such departments are in other countries. And most citizens do not necessarily believe that the police are working to keep them safe.
While police officers go out of their way year after year to facilitate the mega-Lag B’Omer event, eyewitnesses allege that at the moment of the disaster, police had blocked off a main pedestrian artery following a break in the all-night concerts and forcibly directed people towards a narrow, slanted and slippery aluminum-floored artery that led down to a metal staircase.
Further, reports suggest that police just beyond the bottom of the staircase began limiting the flow of pedestrians out, causing a dangerous bottleneck. A formal inquiry will likely reveal that poor police decision-making at the precise spot of the tragedy was a contributing factor, and possibly the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
It should be noted and applauded that once it became clear that people were injured, police and other rescue personnel acted heroically to stop and control the flow of people, and extricate those hurt as quickly as possible. Sadly, under the pile were dozens of dead bodies.
For the Orthodox sectors, whose mistrust of police is already among the highest of all sectors of Israeli society, the Meron disaster threatens to increase wariness, unless a significant effort is made by all sides to repair perceptions.
The Lag B’Omer festival is jointly administered and organized by the Religious Affairs Ministry’s National Center for the Protection of Holy Places, along with local authorities, police and the leadership of several Orthodox Jewish sects. As is the case with many other aspects of Israeli society, the annual operation is based on a system of compromises and outdated precedents meant to balance the interests of groups with varying agendas.
Israeli politics functions largely the same way. The disaster at Meron in many ways reflects the sad state of Israeli governance, with sectoral fights around protecting and destroying a status quo that ultimately fails to appropriately serve collective interests.
A decision had been made by a Netanyahu-led government in 2011 to nationalize control of the festival. Ultimately, Israel’s Supreme Court canceled the government ruling and has refused to rule on the issue since then, leaving a dangerous status quo in place.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana suggested that he would take the responsibility for the incident upon himself, but also said that “responsibility does not mean blame,” adding that “the disaster that happened this year could have happened any other year.”
Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi similarly accepted responsibility for the disaster and vowed to cooperate fully with a formal inquiry into the disaster.
COVID not to blame
Fanning the flames of an already difficult situation, nearly all Israeli media have been reporting that the Meron festivities proceeded despite recommendations by the Health Ministry that limits be placed on the number of participants at the outdoor event in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Throughout the past year, the Israeli press continuously demonized Orthodox Jews for spreading the virus. This is the same press that repeatedly validated the right of left-wing political protesters to gather in the tens of thousands, week in and week out during lockdowns, to challenge Netanyahu’s tenure.
Not everything has to do with coronavirus, however. This disaster was in no way connected to the pandemic or the Health Ministry.
Following a year of darkness and tragedy with thousands dead from coronavirus, spiritual light was seemingly needed more than ever, especially among religious communities who suffered in larger numbers than other sectors of society—mostly due to large families living in close quarters.
More needs to be done to heal the collective wounds of the pandemic. Compassion for those who have suffered both from the pandemic and now in Meron is a good place to start.
A moment for self-reckoning
Ultimately, those who died just outside the tomb of one of Judaism’s greatest sages were trampled under the feet of their fellow Jewish worshippers.
Dozens of families have been struck by a horrific and preventable tragedy. Hundreds more must now live with the permanently embedded memory that they themselves stomped on their fellow Jews—as the sheer momentum of the crowd shoved them forward. Those individuals were fortunate that they, too, did not lose their footing, as had they done so, they may have suffered the same fate as those below them.
Full efforts should be taken to properly and officially evaluate all of the causes of the Meron disaster. Significant money should be invested to correct the defects and develop new and safe infrastructure at Rashbi’s tomb. With proper planning, coordination, and most importantly, cooperation between all sectors, the Lag B’Omer celebration should quickly and safely resume better than ever, and channel the bright spiritual light that all of Israel needs.
On Saturday night, at the Western Wall, worshippers sang together: “Our brothers, the whole house of Israel, who are in distress and captivity, who wander over sea and over land; may God have mercy on them, and bring them from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, from slavery to redemption, now, swiftly, and soon.”
The Lag B’Omer tragedy should make the entire country look inward. The disaster is a reflection of many of the elements of our society that have been exposed in recent years. All sectors need to reflect on what has happened, not just in Meron, but among the entire Jewish nation, and collectively bear the brunt of responsibility.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of JNS.